Ryan Reaves' journey from enforcer to series-clinching hero for the Golden Knights

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- There was a time, not too long ago, that Ryan Reaves wondered if the NHL wanted him anymore. The league has been turning to smaller and faster players over the past decade. Fighting has, organically, come out of vogue. Reaves -- a thick 6-foot-1, 225-pound winger, the son of a professional running back, a player who earned his ticket through grit -- began asking: Are hockey players like me becoming extinct?

For a few summers in the NHL, Reaves trained solely in the boxing ring. He'd spar for hours and "throw weights around so I could fight 250-pound guys," he said. And then he realized: "Those guys are gone, so now I've got to get a little quicker. I've got to add a little skill to my game. You've got to be able to play and not take penalties, and contribute and play responsible in the D-zone."

Looking back on his eight seasons in the league, Reaves says, "I had to adjust quite a bit."

That's how Reaves has survived in the NHL since 2007 at a time when not every team carries a player like him. That's why at last year's draft, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins traded a first-round pick to the St. Louis Blues to acquire Reaves' services. They wanted a protector for Sidney Crosby and their other skilled stars.

That's also why it doesn't always work out for the 31-year-old Reaves. For as hard as he's worked to adjust, the truth is he's still straddling two eras, which can make him feel hamstrung by expectations. The Penguins traded Reaves -- who sometimes played less than four minutes per game -- to the Vegas Golden Knights at this season's trade deadline, less than a year into his tenure in Pittsburgh. And Reaves was scratched for the first nine games of the Golden Knights' postseason.

It's what makes Reaves the latest unlikely hero in this improbable Vegas playoff run. Reaves tipped in the game-winning goal in the second period of Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets to send Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final. It was his first goal since Feb. 15. He hadn't scored in the 26 regular-season and playoff games in which he suited up for Vegas. He has now played in 42 playoff games and has scored just one other time (in 2015 with the Blues).

And there he was, on Sunday night, walking up to the victors' podium for a news conference alongside Marc-Andre Fleury, clutching a cardboard box of pepperoni pizza (half-eaten) with a grin on his face. He looked at the podium and said: "I can't believe they even had one of these name cards made up for me." Later that night, he found out his stick would be shipped to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Everybody on this team has something to prove," Reaves says. "We call ourselves the Golden Misfits for a reason. We're doing a good job of proving everybody wrong."

Reaves spent his first seven seasons with St. Louis. The move to the Penguins was as shocking to fans as it was for Reaves.

"In Pittsburgh, they never really carried a player like me. I don't know if it was ... they just wanted me around. But I wasn't playing a whole lot, and here I was playing a lot more. It was more toward the minutes I was playing last year in St. Louis."

Reaves' regular-season average ice time with the Golden Knights was 9:55, far above his career average of 7:56. In Pittsburgh, there were 18 games in which he played six minutes or less. (It should be noted that in Game 5, Reaves played just 6:58, less ice time by far than any of his teammates). However, Reaves plays into a big theme for the Golden Knights this season, thanks to coach Gerard Gallant: Players have been given a bigger opportunity and freedom to explore their limits.

"He gave me no reason not to play him," Gallant said. "That's what I liked about him: He's a character guy, he's a leader guy. When he didn't play games, he wasn't sulking."

Between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 seasons -- spanning time in the AHL and NHL -- Reaves fought 84 times, according to hockeyfights.com. Reaves has fought only six times this season -- all before Jan. 1. He hasn't engaged in a fight while with the Golden Knights.

But Reaves has found other ways to contribute. He has skated well, he's been active on the forecheck. As Gallant said, "he makes people make quick plays against him."

He's maintained his physicality -- and his personality has meshed with the Golden Misfits who were there before him. When asked about going toe-to-toe with Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien earlier in the playoffs, Reaves gushed about how much taller and heavier Byfuglien was than him. When asked if Byfuglien was the toughest player in the league, Reaves deadpanned: "I'm the toughest player in the league." (He later conceded Byfuglien might be second.)

When asked about a hit on the Jets' Blake Wheeler that sent Winnipeg's captain over the boards, Reaves said: "It doesn't matter who it is. Added bonus if it's their captain."

His quick wit and willingness to contribute -- wherever, however -- has made him a hit with his new linemates.

"He plays the game the right way," Vegas alternate captain Deryk Engelland said. "First guy on every puck, he creates havoc down low on their D-men, he finishes every check, he creates room for his linemates, he's going to go to the dirty areas to get the job done. To get that first goal in what, three and a half months? In the conference finals as the game winner? I couldn't be happier for him."

Not only has Reaves found a way to stay in this league, but he has become a beloved player on one of the NHL's best stories. He was also a star in a Western Conference finals clincher -- in the city he grew up in, where his father, Willard, won the Canadian Football League's Most Outstanding Player Award in 1984 -- and that's something he'll always be able to cherish.